Pets occupy a unique role in our lives. “They are usually our ‘roommates,’ part of the household, and they are typically a source of pure warmth and positive experience,” Ms. Harvey said. “How we are able to manage the temporary reduction of joy and warmth from the missing roommate can be a significant practice in resilience.”
That loss, of course, can have a startling depth. “For adults in their upper-20s to mid-30s it’s like losing their innocence as a new adult and being catapulted into reality,” said Dani McVety, a veterinarian and a founder of Lap of Love Veterinary Hospice, a national network of veterinarians dedicated solely to end of life care. “Many times, people in this age range got their dog or cat at the very beginning of their adulthood. This pet has witnessed them go through college, boyfriends or girlfriends, marriage, children, career developments, and so on. This pet has been the one constant in their life through their biggest growth years.”
How we handle the death of a pet “shapes how we deal with love and loss, conjoined emotions,” said Kaleel Sakakeeny, a pet loss and bereavement counselor who is based in Boston.
From Grief, Building Confidence
But how does that growth happen? One study, “Post-Traumatic Growth Following the Loss of a Pet,” conducted by Wendy Packman and others, of the Pacific Graduate School of Psychology at Palo Alto University, found that after losing a beloved pet, many of the participants reported an improved ability to relate to others and feel empathy for their problems, an enhanced sense of personal strength, and a greater appreciation of life.
Lynn Harrington, who lives in The Plains, Va., lost her 15-year-old Norwich terrier, Hap, about a year ago. “For many months, I couldn’t shake the sadness,” Ms. Harrington said. “And during these sad times, I finally remembered a lesson I learned many years ago with the loss of my first dog: Animals that come into our lives are gifts to us and can never be replaced. However, another animal can come to us and help us heal our hearts.”
Shortly after that epiphany, a friend told her about a senior dog that needed a home, and a match was made. “There isn’t a day that I don’t think of Hap through a photo, a memory shared, or even some funny mannerism I see of him in my rescue dog,” Ms. Harrington said. “These moments remind me that I’m grateful for the animals in my life — they teach me about love and that I’m resilient even in times of great challenge or sadness.”
Remembrance itself — though photos and memorials — can be healing. “Grief is ongoing,” Ms. Packman said. “Remaining connected to your beloved pet after death can facilitate the bereaved’s ability to cope with loss and the accompanying changes in their lives. Our findings suggest that those who derive comfort from continuing bonds — holding onto possessions and creating memorials for their pet — may be more likely to experience post-traumatic growth.”